When I first entered the newly installed Cleopatra: The Exhibition at the California Science Center, I instantly lost my bearings. The dramatically darkened space, high lit with stone figurines, provides a stark contrast to the brightly lit atrium of the Science Center’s ultra modern building, which seems to always be full of chirping school children. I was transported back through time.
Cleopatra’s story is told via the headsets (which are free, so there’s no excuse not to listen) and a short film that orients visitors historically to Cleopatra’s era. But the heart of this exhibit belongs to Franck Goddio, a deep sea archeologist who has dedicated his career to the excavation of the underwater terrain off of the Nile’s Delta where he has found ample evidence of several lost cities. The exhibit, co-produced by National Geographic, gives equal exposure to Dr. Zahi Hawass, whose fruitless search in the desert for the tombs of Cleopatra and Marc Antony pales in comparison with the abundant relics found by divers under the Mediterranean. Click here for audio slide shows about these two searches.
Despite admiring these two wondrously tall statues of a royal couple recovered from the ocean floor, I was mesmerized by the cityscapes imagined by Goddio and his team: the harbor of Alexandria, the religious and recreational sites of Canopus and attending encampments along the Nile, and the impressive temples at Heracleion. Surely, this was a time to be living in the most sophisticated city in the world.
Last fall, I devoured Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life, relishing her descriptions of life in Alexandria and her astonishingly intimate descriptions of Cleopatra’s political acumen and passionate intelligence. I highly recommend this biography! Cleopatra may or may not have been a true beauty, but her ability to fascinate the most important men in the world — Julius Caesar, Marc Antony — as well as generations of historians, painters, writers and fans proves her to be history’s most enigmatic woman. Or, as Harold Bloom called her, history’s ‘first celebrity’. No matter how you examine her – as the key to unlocking the mysteries of Alexandria or as the lover of the most powerful men in the Greco-Roman world – she still holds us all in her historical gaze.
Cleopatra’s final resting place has yet to be discovered – click here for an informative article about one woman’s quest to find Cleopatra’s tomb, which includes this sage commentary: ‘maybe finding her tomb would diminish what Shakespeare called “her infinite variety.” Disembodied, at large in the realm of myth, more context than text, Cleopatra is free to be of different character to different times, which may be the very wellspring of her vitality. No other figure from antiquity seems so versatile in her ambiguities, so modern in her contradictions’. (Chip Brown for National Geographic)
The exhibit is at The California Science Center until the end of the year, but why not pick up Schiff’s biography and enjoy it before taking a gang of kids to the show this summer. Screening Elizabeth Taylor’s version of Cleopatra may tax your patience (though, I don’t want to stop you from trying). Kids will have a better time watching the accompanying IMAX show Mysteries of Egypt on the Science Center’s 7-story IMAX screen. (Psst – you can purchase a combo ticket to show and IMAX to save a little money.)